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Interactive shows, hot new genre on TV

August 16, 2003

It was a TV show with a difference -- and it tested the bounds of propriety and good taste. One contestant ripped off his shirt before the judges and had to be stopped form removing his trousers.

He was one of 132 contestants vying for the two crowns of Hottest Boy and Girl in India on Sony AXN's Hot & Wild pageant.

The 132 uninhibited youngsters picked from a deluge of 5,000 hopefuls were put through their paces in the normally staid banquet hall at Delhi's Hyatt Regency.

The judges were fashion choreographer Achala Sachdev, supermodel-turned-actor Milind Soman and Gregory Ho vice president, marketing, at TV channel AXN.

A further weeding process will see eight participants vie for India's titles next month and the selection will be based on an audience poll and the judges' decision. The prize? Big money and the chance to host a brand new interactive adventure programme on the channel.

This is the new world of interactive shows where the audience is part of the spectacle -- the new genre of programmes wooing audiences across the television spectrum.

On offer is a mix of fame, money and glamour. These shows are dream vehicles that promise to transform unknown faces into overnight stars.

Says Rohit Bhandari, assistant vice president, marketing and sales at AXN, "This is our first attempt to reach out to the Indian audience with an interactive TV contest format."

Adds Keertan Adyanthaya, vice president, content and communication at Star India's Channel V, promoter of the hugely popular Popstars, "It's more than just a reality show, it's television involving the viewer. That's the future."

What makes shows like MTV's Roadies or the National Geographic channel's Mission Everest or Channel V's Popstars such big hits? They reach out to their audiences and dangle carrots like the possibility of a glamorous career for the boy or girl next door.

Also, what's making such shows possible is the ease in which viewers can sign up to take part. While the channel provides the hype, people use e-mail, SMS and even dial in or fill out forms at the neighbourhood store to participate.

MTV's Bada VJ Hunt says it received 11,000 entries and viewers in 23.5 million homes voted for their favourites using these assorted communication tools.

The programme that demonstrated the potential of interactive TV was the Popstars show on Channel V aired in January 2002. Thousands of ordinary girls auditioned before a panel of judges to be part of a five-member pop band.

The result was the all-girl band Viva. Though one of the stars dropped out later, four of them are still together and have recently released their second album.

Now there is a second talent show along the same lines but the boys are getting a look-in this time with a mixed band -- Kudi and Munda. More than 15,000 hopefuls have sent in applications to take part in Popstars 2 -- double the number in the last contest.

Even more sedate channels like National Geographic have gotten into the game. In fact, National Geographic has taken interactive shows, and in this case reality TV, to new heights.

It teamed up with the Indo-Nepal Army Everest Expedition for an ambitious adventure programme Mission Everest, celebrating the 50th year of the Everest expedition. The channel chose five Indians from nearly 30,000 entries to accompany the Indian army.

Puneet Johar, associate vice president, marketing at National Geographic Channel India says, "Our aim is to bring the spirit of exploration and adventure into the lives of common people through Mission Everest. With this series we are attempting to create local programming specifically for the Indian viewer." The nine-episode series premiered on April 20.

MTV is also getting in on the act and hoping to go one up on its rival Channel V with its new show The MTV and Hero Honda Roadies. In this programme, seven roadies will ride for 40 days across India from Chennai to Chail with the camera lens on them all the time.

"We were looking for kids with different backgrounds who would have to face real life problems, spend time in villages, make do with limited resources and combat the unexpected challenges en route to Chail," says MTV's vice president creative, Cyrus Oshidar.

The four boys and three girls selected from five cities will be accompanied by VJ and co-traveller Cyrus Sahukar who will anchor the 26-part series that will start airing in October.

Interactive programming isn't entirely new on television. Game shows have always featured ordinary men and women taking a shot at earning riches.

Star TV's Kaun Banega Crorepati anchored by legendary film star Amitabh Bachchan showed how it could sweep the ratings. But except for the prize money, the programme was basically a quiz show.

The latest trend is to give participants more than their 15 minutes of fame. On offer are real life experiences and maybe even a lucrative career.

So each of the MTV Roadies will win a 223cc Hero Honda Karizma bike, get scholarships from Rai University and be part of MTV's reality adventure show, which flagged off from Chennai. And if they are lucky, they could be the next Malaika Arora on MTV.

Now take Channel V's Popstars contest. While the four lucky stars, will strike new notes with their band, the rest (81 of them) will receive scholarships of Rs 100,000 each. They will pursue music courtesy Rai University.

While interactive TV has been around in the west for some years, it has been moving ahead in fits and starts only for the last couple of years in India.

MTV showed the potential with its MTV Coca Cola Star Hunt two years ago, when its five-city auditions drew 15,000 entries. Eight youngsters were chosen to star in the Tips' film production Ishq Vishq Pyaar Vyaar, one of this year's hits.

Last year, it partnered with Nickelodeon for the Chota VJ Hunt. The winner Shiv Tandan from Ambala outclassed 4,300 youngsters and he now hosts Say Please, a request show on the channel. And for the Bara VJ Hunt, MTV roped in Colgate last year.

What do these shows do for the channels? They build an instant rapport with its viewers. The huge publicity surrounding the shows helps channels boost ratings and steal a march on their competitors.

For instance, during the 10 weeks of the Mission Everest series launched on April 20, National Geographic moved ahead of Discovery channel across six metros, grabbing 0.7 per cent of viewers.

Discovery was behind at 0.5 per cent. While these numbers may seem small, the channels draw premium advertisers and they do have their niche audiences.

Or take the TAM People Meter reports for music channels in the June 15-August 2 period in the 15-44 age bracket in the metros. Channel V which earlier trailed MTV overtook with a 0.16 per cent viewership share. MTV was at 0.12 per cent.

Not everyone is impressed by such figures. "I don't think the shows are that popular. And the marginal increase in the channels' viewership shares is inconsequential," says Amit Khanna, chairman, Reliance Entertainment.

The channels, however, do not buy this. "It's one small step for the channel but a giant leap for an advertiser," says the marketing head of a channel.

So can Roadies take MTV back to the driver's seat? "We are going all out, with a 360-degree push," says Oshidar. MTV also plans to launch a music album on the Roadies theme.

Certainly, the sponsors seem to like these shows. Channel V's Popstars 2 also seem to have scored by letting boys step in front of the camera.

Its all-girl band Viva mainly attracted advertisers seeking to leverage girl-power appeal. In comparison, a host of male-centric advertisers have also jumped onstage to back the mixed band contest.

Two-wheeler company, Yamaha is offering its Libero as a prize. Auto major Mahindra & Mahindra is driving its Bolero for the winners while Motorola is giving away phones.

Other sponsors include Revlon, Johnson & Johnson's Acuvue lenses, Atlas Cycles, Henkel's Fa deodorant and fashion accessory XM tattoos. The title sponsors are Coke while Times Music continues to market the music.

National Geographic which spent Rs 11 crore (Rs 110 million) on Mission Everest feels it was money well spent. "Now advertisers are looking at us for partnerships," Johar says.

While Hero Honda, was the presenting sponsor, LG-CDMA, Hitachi, Mahindra Bolero, Parle G, Samay Quartz, Zandu Balm and even Everest Teekha Laal, from Everest Masala also bought airtime. Other retail partners included Cafe Coffee Day, HDFC Bank and Hyatt Regency.

The channel is so bullish on this genre that Johar hopes it will have more such shows.

AXN says this is only the start of big things. It says this year it was just testing waters, and next year it hopes to have some major league sponsors.

"We will cash in on this year's success," says Bhandari. Already, Cafe Coffee Day, which distributed the entry forms for AXN's contest in its outlets, is all set to launch the Hot & Wild coffee flavour and have co-branded coffee mugs.

The advertising windfall is seeing other channels adopt the genre.Hindi channel Sahara TV will launch Grooves, a talent hunt contest. Pegged as an entertainment Olympiad, participants will dance and sing.

It will be shot in ten countries including UK, US and Pakistan. The show will be anchored by Javed Jaffrey, who seven years ago masterminded Boogie Woogie, a similar offering from Sony.

And the booty? Winners will ride home in a Mercedes Benz and the best singer will cut an album with Sahara Television.

There are others waiting in the wings. For instance, there is international channel Reality TV that is about to make its debut in India.

Reality TV is non-stop diet of fly on the wall reality programmes. Launched in February, while no local programming is in the offing, Chris Turner, portfolio director Reality TV, feels the sense of adventure that is all pervasive, will help it grab channel share.

Advertisers seem happy at these new developments, saying it will help them boost their reach. Says Atul Sobti, senior vice president, marketing and sales at Hero Honda: "Typically, buying airtime leaves you in a brand clutter. But title sponsoring is the perfect mix. It also helps us bond better with our existing customers," he says.

Agrees Shovon Chowdhury, vice president of advertising agency Bates India, "On-the-ground events are attractive for the sheer opportunity it offers to interact with customers; something a soap does not provide."

So, it seems for viewers, advertisers and channels, interactive TV is a win-win situation all round.

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